As if the French haven't taken enough of a hit lately, here comes Gaspar Noé. In recent weeks, the Nietzsche-spouting, overage enfant terrible of new French cinema has been making the publicity rounds sneering about Hollywood and gleefully recounting how his film "Irréversible" has caused moviegoers from Cannes to Sundance to faint. As schlockmeister William Castle once said about the art of movie exploitation, "You've got to have some little hook, whether it's perfume, whether it's incense or whether it's a flamethrower. But you've got to have something." Noé's something is rape.
"Irréversible" is a gimmick movie, a rape-and-revenge story told in reverse. The film opens with the end credits crawling backward, which makes them mostly unreadable with the notable exception of the names of the stars, Vincent Cassel and his wife, Monica Bellucci, as well as those of the production companies and the director.
After the credits conclude, the camera floats topsy-turvy outside a brick building, then cuts to a room where a slab of a man (Philippe Nahon) sits naked talking to a clothed companion. "Time," says the nudist, "destroys all things." The other guy asks, "What happened to you?" The nudist, the raging center in Noé's previous feature "I Stand Alone," replies, "I was in the joint because I slept with my daughter.... She was so cute!"
We never do learn what this prelude means, outside of the obvious: that Noé enjoys goosing the audience as much as William Castle does. Noé isn't big on explanations or, as it rapidly emerges, making meaning. His two ideas in "Irréversible" are that man is an animal and that time destroys everything. That's about it, with a graphically rendered murder tossed in at the beginning and an extended rape sequence as the narrative pièce de résistance, complete with a digitally rendered erect penis. Shot with only a few scripted pages and largely improvised, "Irréversible" may be a whole lot of noisy nothing -- tricked out with flash cinematography, ear-bleeding sound design and some cringe-worthy references to Stanley Kubrick -- but it's certainly attention-grabbing.
Since its premiere at Cannes last year, the film has attracted equally passionate defenders and detractors. It's easy to see what has critics in a lather. The murder entails stomach-churning sights and sounds rarely found outside exploitation movies, and the rape hews along the lines of male fantasies like that found in Sam Peckinpah's 1971 career low, "Straw Dogs." In the years since "Straw Dogs," filmmakers have continued to push sex and violence to extremes; material that was once the exclusive provenance of the grindhouse has, increasingly, become fodder for the art house. Unquestionably, some of the work that's emerged achieves the sublime but, like "Irréversible," much of it is rubbish calculated to tickle the sensibilities of consumers hooked on shocks that are more gonzo than intellectual or aesthetic.
After the opening interlude, "Irréversible" returns to the world outside, where flashing police lights are staining the night red. Accompanied by a chorus of jeers and a throbbing low-frequency drone, two men, Marcus (Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), are escorted from a gay S&M club called the Rectum, where a murder has been committed.
Earlier that evening, the two had attended a party thrown by friends with Marcus' live-in lover, Alex (Bellucci). During the party, Alex fought with Marcus and left the party alone, declining Pierre's offer of an escort home. Daunted by the prospect of navigating one of Paris' heavily trafficked boulevards in her high heels, Alex instead entered an underground tunnel, where a stranger (Jo Prestia) anally raped her, then pummeled her into a coma.
Movie rapes are always tough to sit through, and what makes this one tougher still is that it's a carefully choreographed spectacle. From the moment the rapist forces Alex to the ground -- with the camera dropping to face them head-on -- the assault is framed for maximum voyeurism. The attacker, repeatedly declaring that he is going to rape Alex, has pushed her onto her stomach. The position suits the rapist's stated purpose, of course, but more tellingly it also suits Noé's since it gives his camera a front-row seat from which to shoot the action. Helping to keep the view unobstructed, Bellucci periodically steadies herself by propping her body up with one of her arms, a gesture that, incidentally, keeps much of her face and swaying décolletage visible.
It's no accident that the position assumed by the actors is a favorite in hard-core pornography: It serves the woman up for our delectation. The assailant is wielding a knife, and his victim is crying no -- but this isn't a realistic rape in all its venal banality; it's an aestheticized, sexualized pantomime of a rape. It's worth mentioning that the scene, from the moment Alex enters the tunnel until she's beaten into unconsciousness, lasts some 11 minutes, which is about the running time of a roll of Super 16-millimeter film, the format in which the feature was shot. Noé has said that part of what motivated him to make "Irréversible" was a desire to militate against the pabulum of Hollywood by depicting violence as it is: raw, uncensored, extreme and, apparently, in 11-minute bites. At the very least, 11 minutes help explain why the rapist seemed to be stalling for time.
The film takes another 50 minutes or so to reach its terminus. As the story unwinds, we see Alex, Marcus and Pierre on their way to the party, joking and laughing and animatedly discussing sex. The talk is silly, goofily vulgar, but there's an undercurrent of hostility to the jocularity, particularly in Pierre's repeated digs about Alex's sexual past. Pierre is clearly infatuated with her, an attraction that finds its opposite in his repulsed feelings for her boyfriend, whom he disgustedly brands an animal. In Noé's worldview, the hotheaded, hot-bodied Marcus symbolizes Man the Animal, unfettered by reason and driven only by irrational hungers (for sex, revenge, whatever), while Pierre, the film's designated intellectual (and lousy lover), stands for Rational Man.
And Alex? She has no place in this dialectic; she's just meat, packaged in revealing satin one minute, pounded into hamburger the next. Noé, with his Nietzsche-for-knuckleheads nihilism and extreme-cinema ambitions, clearly fancies himself a visionary, but mounting a camera on a roller coaster or putting a story into rewind doesn't make a film formally adventurous or interesting. Conceiving of a gay club as an antechamber to the inferno and sexualizing a woman's rape, however, do make it titillating. Like a number of recent French movies, "Irréversible" pushes the edge of the sexual envelope, the difference being that unlike his gutsier contemporaries, directors Catherine Breillat ("Romance") and Claire Denis ("Beau Travail"), Noé isn't concerned with subverting the status quo. Indeed, what he really seems to want to do is make a Hollywood movie.
When Noé first conceived of the film, he was interested in making a legitimate feature with real hard-core sex, fulfilling one of Kubrick's unrealized dreams to make a Hollywood hard-core movie. Noé wanted, Cassel has said, to make the film that "Tom and Nicole screwed up" -- in other words, to make a more explicit "Eyes Wide Shut." After flirting with the idea, Cassel and Bellucci decided against making a hard-core pornographic film, and from the ashes of that project "Irréversible" was born. It's hard not to think as you watch the two actors that the director was more than a little ticked off by their refusal to play along with him. There's something punishing, almost personal about the brutality that is rained down on their characters, especially when contrasted with the palpable tenderness between them.
During Marcus and Pierre's frantic search for Alex's rapist, an informant points them in the direction of the gay club. Marcus yells, "Où est le Rectum?" ("Where is the Rectum?") again and again -- to Pierre, to a hapless cabdriver and to everyone else unlucky enough to cross his path. The phrase quickly takes on an air of unintended hilarity before, as with everything else in this film, it devolves into pure tedium. When Marcus bellowed his cri de guerre for what seemed like the 20th time, I had to resist the temptation to yell right back, "Look behind the camera, you idiot."
MPAA rating: unrated
Times guidelines: extreme graphic violence, including rape and murder; explicit sex and nudity; expletives
Monica Bellucci ... Alex
Vincent Cassel ... Marcus
Albert Dupontel ... Pierre
Jo Prestia ... Le Tenia
Philippe Nahon ... Ex-butcher
A Nord-Ouest Production and Eskwad presentation, released by Lions Gate Films. Director-writer-editor-cameraman Gaspar Noé. Producers Christophe Rossignon, Richard Grandpierre. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
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